Interpretations of the Renaissance in Spanish Historical Thought

By Di Camillo, Ottavio | Renaissance Quarterly, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview

Interpretations of the Renaissance in Spanish Historical Thought


Di Camillo, Ottavio, Renaissance Quarterly


There are several reasons for presenting an overview of what the terms Renaissance and humanism have meant to Spanish historians and literary critics during the past one hundred fifty years. Despite the fact that these historiographical categories have not received the same attention in Spain as they have in other parts of Europe, it is still useful to identify certain recurring assumptions regarding the nature of the Spanish Renaissance and to point out how these underlying presuppositions are usually linked, directly or indirectly, to the historical development of the concept of the Renaissance elaborated elsewhere in Europe. One hopes that this brief exposition will be of some benefit to those students of the Spanish Renaissance who are unaware of the ideological currents and methodological trends that have motivated, and to a certain extent determined, the major interpretations of the period that have been proposed. For scholars who are unfamiliar with the views and ideas of Spanish historians and literary critics of the Renaissance this outline may serve as an introduction to their works and as an aid in assessing their contributions.

The period under review is relatively short, spanning approximately one hundred fifty years, that is, from the second half of the last century, when the first interpretations of the Renaissance were formulated, to the present. But long before any theoretical treatment of the concept of the Renaissance in Spanish historical thought was undertaken, the idea of a rebirth of Spanish letters had already enjoyed a long tradition. The earliest documented evidence of a revival of learning can be dated, in fact, to around the middle of the fifteenth century. Isolated occurrences of expressions relating to a cultural renewal, such as "dispelling the darkness of ignorance," "illuminating Spain with new light," or "driving out the barbarians from schools and universities," which are first recorded in the writings of this time, began to appear at an increasing rate in letters, books and treatises during the next two centuries, when both the notion of a cultural reawakening and the role of the movement responsible for bringing it about - what we call today humanism - were widely acknowledged.(1) The idea that a cultural rebirth had taken place within a well-defined period in Spanish civilization became the most significant feature in the first histories of literature, poetry and eloquence composed in the second half of the eighteenth century mainly by Jesuit scholars who took refuge in Italy after their expulsion from Spain.(2) It was also at this time that the sixteenth century, a period of unprecedented achievements in literature, arts and sciences, came to be known as the Siglo de Oro or the Golden Age, as it is usually referred to in English. This designation rapidly gained wide acceptance and eventually came to replace the term Renaissance. The question of periodization, a new and important feature of the incipient national history, was resolved in favor of dividing the literary culture of Spain into three periods: a primitive stage that lasted to the end of the fifteenth century, the Golden Age in the sixteenth century and a third period from the seventeenth century on. Jose Luis Velasquez was the only historian who believed that the literature and culture of the fifteenth century should constitute a separate period because of certain distinctive characteristics which set it apart from both the previous primitive stage and the Siglo de Oro of the following century.(3)

Interest in the Renaissance as a cultural rebirth waned during the first part of the nineteenth century when the predominant romantic interpretations of Spanish literature, generally written outside of Spain, stressed the originality, purity and spontaneity of the national creative genius as this manifested itself in the Middle Ages. All artistic expressions associated with the restoration of classical learning or with any form of erudition, from the fifteenth century on, were unconditionally branded as foreign, imitative and servile art.

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